Re-imagining the Hall of Fame

Jim McIsaac

By this time of year, most of us are tired of Hall of Fame arguments. Instead of abandoning the endeavor entirely, let's simply take a different approach. If we were building a Hall of Fame from scratch, who would be the first ten players we'd induct?

Many people are put off by controversy and heated debate while others say they're put off by it when they actually live for it. No matter your disposition, you're probably ready to stop talking about the Hall of Fame by now. If you love the fight, you probably love other fights and if you hate it, you're glad it won't pop up again until December. At the risk of angering just about everyone, I'd like to talk a little more about the Hall of Fame. Except I won't be talking about voting reform or the current ballot.

The idea came to me on Friday night, which moved me to ask our Twitter followers this question:

While I expected a lot of opinions on the subject, I was blown away by the number of people who offered suggestions. The idea resonated, so I figured it deserved more than 140 character snippets. Let's start by expanding on the rules. Imagine you're starting the Hall of Fame from scratch today. Pretend it didn't exist and you were charged with populating it with the best players in baseball history. No one is banned, there is no waiting period, and your only task is to select the first ten members to be inducted. You're given no other guidance. If the Hall was yours to populate, who would populate the "inner circle?"

This link takes you to the Twitter chain, but the conversation spread across multiple accounts and users, so a good old search of "@BtBScore" is your safest bet to find all the ballots. I'd like to offer mine below. Coming up with ten names was an impossible task because you had to leave so many on the cutting room floor. I enjoyed the exercise because it turned the Hall of Fame from a battle about who should be in to an argument about who are the ten best players that already are. That is very much open to interpretation. It's crazy to suggest Jack Morris is a Hall of Famer and Mike Mussina isn't, but deciding between Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson is a matter of taste. You're not picking the players who are objectively worthy of induction, you're sorting players based on what you want to highlight in the first year of the New Hall's existence. Let's play.

I have a ballot of ten players, but I would like to say up front that I wish I had included Jackie Robinson. It was very difficult to make a list of ten, but I didn't really consider Robinson because his impact wasn't measured on the stat pages that I consulted along the way. My ten guys are inner circle Hall of Famers, but I'm naming the building after Jackie.

The two tables below feature the position players and pitchers I chose with their various statistical ranks among hitters with at least 5000 plate appearances and pitchers with at least 1500 innings pitched. For position players, I have wRC+ to capture their hitting capabilities and fWAR to fold in playing time, baserunning, defense, and position. For pitchers, we'll use fWAR and RA9-WAR.

Player wRC+ Rank fWAR Rank
Babe Ruth 1 1
Barry Bonds 5 2
Willie Mays 18 3
Honus Wagner 28 5
Ted Williams 2 8
Stan Musial 10 10
Rogers Hornsby 4 9

Player fWAR Rank RA9 WAR Rank
Roger Clemens 1 3
Greg Maddux 4 6
Sandy Koufax 62 78

There's no perfect way to put together a list like this, so I'll give you my thought process. I don't think these are necessarily the best ten players in history, but they are the players I would enshrine first if given the power. Ruth doesn't need much explanation. Bonds is on the list for the same reasons. A lot of people held back because of his PED connections, but I simply can't ignore the mark he left on baseball. Maybe he had some chemical help, but so did a lot of people during his time and he was still a skyscraper next to a farmhouse.

Mays makes the list as the best two way player in the game's history. Not only was he one of the best 20 hitters of all time, but he was also an elite defensive centerfielder. While their careers only overlapped slightly, I've always thought of Wagner and Hornsby together as the barometer by which all middle infielders are judged. You know how the best player on your little league team got to play shortstop? I'm pretty sure Wagner invented that. And Hornsby deserves induction for staring out the window and waiting for spring.

You can't make a serious list of the best hitters in baseball history without Ted Williams and he makes it onto this list for that very reason. Maybe it's Ruth, but Ted Williams is on that same plane. Williams ranks second all time in wRC+, but third place is 14 points behind him. Not only that, but he missed part of his prime because of WWII and had one of the best final seasons in the game's history.

Stan Musial is a sentimental favorite of mine. If you tried to draw this up with an objective criteria, he's a strong candidate, but the stories of Musial's character have always grabbed me. He doesn't need extracurriculars to push him over the top, but I'm not going to ignore them.

Clemens and Maddux don't need a defense, except to repeat my thoughts on Bonds. Clemens is one of the best pitchers ever. Could I make him wait for the second round of voting? Sure, but any further and my hypothetical exercise starts to crumble.

Koufax was the selection that left me out on an island, with only a few others mentioning him in their respective lists. If you care about total career value, Koufax is nowhere to be found, but Koufax has always been the model of pitching greatness for me. Those final six years of his career are nothing short of superhuman. He basically had three ten win seasons and three six win seasons to close out his career. Could you imagine what Koufax could have been with the benefit of 21st century medicine? Koufax left us wanting more.

I think this is a fun exercise because it allows us to think about baseball history in a way we don't often consider. Instead of a dichotomous Yes/No vote on Hall of Famers, this develops rings of excellence. Not only are you a member of the Hall, but you are classified based on your accomplishments. We could even have a "one great moment" distinction for guys like Jack Morris and Kirk Gibson.

People are interested in changing how members are elected and I'm on board with that, but a better way to celebrate baseball history would be to go back and revisit the greatest players in a way that gets people excited. I've offered my first step, feel free to share yours in the comments.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Neil Weinberg is the Associate Managing Editor at Beyond The Box Score, contributor to Gammons Daily, and can also be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. You can follow and interact with him on Twitter at @NeilWeinberg44.

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